Understanding conflicting identities as a queer student of colour

Queer students of colour at Queen’s reflect on coming out, representations of queerness in media, and intersecting identities

The Journal spoke with queer folks of colour about their experiences. 

This piece uses “Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC)” to refer to the experiences of racialized students. We acknowledge this term is not universal. 

For queer students of colour at Queen’s, understanding one’s identity is a lifelong process. It’s one that’s complicated by cultural expectations, covert racism, and the fact that representations of queerness in the media are inherently rooted in whiteness.  

Cindy Ci, ArtSci ’20, said the moments where race and sexuality connect can be the most painful.

“Race and sexuality do this dance, and the points where they connect hurt the most,” Ci told The Journal. 

Other students shared similar thoughts on the complexity of existing as a queer person of colour. In interviews with The Journal, three students delved into the emotional process of coming out and shared insights on understanding race and sexuality as unique facets of their identities.

“Your life doesn’t belong to you if you’re a queer person—the details are out to everyone for your experiences to be validated.”

The image of a white teenage boy coming out to his parents in a heartfelt speech is ingrained in our cultural psyche through movies, TV shows, and “coming out” stories on YouTube and TikTok.

Though some may have experiences similar to ones seen in movies, children of immigrants often have a different experience.

“The only family member I have come out to is my dad,” Megan*, ArtSci ’19 told The Journal. “That was not by my choice.”

Megan was the head of her high school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) when she was in Grade 11 and was scheduled to lead an assembly.

“One of the teachers who was facilitating the club said I wasn’t allowed to speak unless I told my family,” Megan said. “He was also Chinese and he was gay, so I was very confused. He literally cornered me after class and told me—I felt blindsided.”

Megan said her father responded with silence, and the conversation hasn’t come up since.

“For him, I think there was a realization that his daughters are people with their own thoughts and feelings that he doesn’t have insight to outside of his relationship with us,” Megan said.

“We’ve never talked about it since then, which I think is a very Chinese thing.”

Megan raised the notion that queer people are expected to declare their identity in a coming out speech and in doing so, their identity is validated. However, this is not the case or a safe possibility for many racialized people. The addition of cultural identity and gender roles outside the Western context can make coming out a terrifying and uncomfortable experience that is not represented in various forms of media.

“There’s this idea that you have to make a public, exclamatory statement as if you’re some kind of government official, which is not true,” Megan said. “Your life doesn’t belong to you if you’re a queer person—the details are out to everyone for your experiences to be validated.”

Arianna,* ArtSci ’22, shared a similar sentiment in discussing her coming out journey.

“People seem to parade who they are, and I just don’t understand that,” she said. “I’m always questioning, should I put it in my bio on social media?”

Ci also did not plan on coming out to her parents but ended up telling her mom about not being straight in a heated argument.

“It was in an argument I was having with my mom where she was insisting that she knew what was best for me because she knew me completely,” Ci said. “I ended up saying, ‘No you don’t! Guess what? I like women.’”

“In that moment, everything stopped—there was only white noise.”

Ci’s experience was complicated in the moments after she came out, especially because of her close relationship with her father.

“After our fight, about half an hour later, my mom came to my door,” Ci said. “She ended up saying, ‘You don’t need to open the door, but what you told me—please, please don’t tell your dad because it will break his heart.’”

In that moment, Ci understood the complexity of familial expectations and her queer identity.

“I would be letting my dad down, the person who has always been there for me, if he knew,” Ci said. “It’s such a demanding force to just like girls.”

All students interviewed agreed that coming out does not happen in one singular conversation, especially because labels can shift and develop over time. Rather, it’s a lifelong process of exploring one’s sexuality and understanding gender identity, both internally and in relationships with others.  

“They hold their traditions close because the world they’re in doesn’t completely understand them.”

For queer racialized people, there is an added layer of culture and tradition to consider in conversations on sexuality.

“My parents came to Canada 21 or 22 years ago, and they grew up in a very Westernized world,” Ci said.

“They hold on to their traditions because they had to go through the process of immigrating here and dealing with backlash and finding their way in a country that doesn’t exactly speak their language. They hold their traditions close because the world they’re in doesn’t completely understand them.”

Megan described the experience of being queer and racialized as a “balancing act.”

“For a lot of queer people, you have to pick between being immersed in your culture or being immersed in a more Western culture,” Megan said. “Western culture might be more accepting of your queer identity and sexuality, but then you don’t have your culture.”

She also said existing between multiple levels of marginalization can be difficult to navigate.

“When you’re already demonized for your culture, you don’t go out asking for another level of marginalization,” Megan said.

She raised the struggle to exist in the “rigid dichotomies” of gender roles and how difficult it can be to adhere to these binaries.

“I find the concept of femininity confusing and very interesting,” Megan said. “I think the gender roles in Chinese culture are almost more strict than Western culture. If you don’t follow tradition, you’re attacking the community bond or the collective norm.”

Arianna, on the other hand, has existed in the chaos of in-between identities her whole life, which has complicated her ability to explore her sexuality.

“I’m biracial, I’m not quite brown enough to be brown but I’m also not white,” she said. “I know nothing about my heritage, and everything I know is whitewashed. My sexuality was very lost in the mess of it all.”

While Arianna’s father has the lived experience of being a person of colour, he is unable to accept queerness in any form. Meanwhile, her mother is open to conversations about gender and sexuality but displays covert racism and microaggressions when talking about race. 

“I’ve been really wanting to learn about my Middle Eastern heritage, but I’m afraid to do that because my mom would hate me for doing that before learning about her culture,” Arianna said.

“She is totally fine with the LGBTQIA community, but my dad is the opposite—he doesn’t care about race, but you can’t be gay.”

Arianna added she felt pressure to remain “straight” in the eyes of her parents because of her siblings’ sexual orientations.

“My brother was straight for a really long time, but he was always angry, and eventually came out as gay,” she said.

“My dad, who is a Lebanese man, said we need to take him to a doctor. I was always my dad’s favourite and I didn’t want to disappoint him by being in a relationship with a woman.”

Arianna currently has no plans to officially come out to her parents. Similar to Megan, she remains in the balancing act of grappling with her identity as a queer woman of colour.  

“I’ve been really good at separating who I am, which is so bad,” Arianna said.

“I can be openly BIPOC with some people, openly queer with others, and openly autistic with another community. I rarely let those identities all exist together.”

“Is it exclusively a BIPOC experience to be objectified for liking girls? No. But being BIPOC, it comes with the extra spice of oppression and degradation.”

When asked about queer storytelling, all three students spoke to the lack of representation of racialized folks in mainstream media.

“I have never seen someone who is exactly like me in the media, or even kind of like me,” Arianna said. “If there is a BIPOC woman, I usually see them in scenes where they’re talking about men.”

There was also consensus on queer stories being rooted in whiteness, and often not considering the intersections of occupying multiple marginalized identities.

“I grew up here thinking I would have the white American story,” Ci said.

“Things continue to remind us that we’re still partly tokenized. Our position will never matter as much as the white story, which is so horrifying to understand.”

Megan raised a similar point, analyzing the limitations of grounding “coming out” in high school coming of age movies.

“In the media, coming out is always paralleled with a coming of age story,” Megan said.

“But most people I know don’t figure out their sexuality in high school. Coming out is a lifelong process, and just because you don’t come out, that doesn’t mean you’re not confident in your sexuality.”

Megan offered the idea that this leads to a warped societal understanding of who is queer, causing a “generational divide” between young people and the rest of the queer community.

In conversations about intersecting identities, Ci noted that fetishization plays a role in how queer women of colour are perceived and treated in social situations.

“The fetishization of BIPOC women is so incredibly gross and out there,” Ci said.

She spoke directly about the fetishization of Asian women in popular culture.

“When I first realized it, I thought about how Austin Powers just happened to have those two Asian women behind him, or in Mean Girls when the Vietnamese character makes out with the coach,” Ci said.

This fetishization, Ci offered, manifests in how she and other Asian women are treated in social interactions.

“I don’t want to go to a party, stumble upon the conversation of me being queer, and be asked to make out with someone,” Ci said.

“Is it exclusively a BIPOC experience to be objectified for liking girls? No. But being BIPOC, it comes with the extra spice of oppression and degradation.”

“The representations I’ve seen are definitely in the people I’ve met and the events I’ve attended.”

Instead of searching for accurate representations of racialized queer stories in the media, Megan said she finds them in the real experiences of people around her.

“The representations I’ve seen are definitely in the people I’ve met and the events I’ve attended,” Megan said.

She brought up Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Youth and Elders Group as an example of intersectional, authentic representation.

“They invite queer people of all ages to just come and chat,” Megan said.

“I’ve met people who are Anishinaabe and Chinese and queer, and these are real people. Having tangible connections with them is really interesting.”

Megan spoke to the overwhelming sense of understanding and belonging when those closest to you can relate to the intersections of your identity.

“My friends and my communities are mostly people with similar intersecting identities,” Megan said. “It’s very disorienting for me to connect with people who have no experience with those identities.”

Ci is pursuing her passion for theatre with hopes of creating authentic art that reflects the experience of queer folks of colour.

“I’m studying theatre as a way to try and incorporate my culture into storytelling, and to help build a better platform for all BIPOC people,” Ci said. “It’s a way to honour the diaspora that we exist in.”

*Names changed for anonymity due to safety reasons

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